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NFL Preview - New England (3-0) at Atlanta (1-2)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The faces may change but the winning continues for New England, something the Atlanta Falcons will try to stop on Sunday night.
"Football Night in America" will feature the two active quarterbacks with the best winning percentages as starters when the Patriots' Tom Brady (139-39, .781) and Atlanta's Matt Ryan (57-24, .704) meet.
Both clubs advanced to their respective conference's championship game a year ago, but the Falcons have stumbled out of the gate this time around.
Despite drastic changes at the skill positions around Brady, though, the Pats are at a more comfortable 3-0 after a 23-3 win over Tampa Bay in Week 3. Brady, who has now thrown a touchdown pass in 51 consecutive games, connected with rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins on two TD passes against the Bucs.
"We had good contributions from all three phases on offense, defense and special teams," said New England head coach Bill Belichick, who earned his 208th career win, one shy of tying Pittsburgh legend Chuck Noll for fifth place on the NFL's all-time list. "I thought our situational football was better: third down, red area, fourth down, kicking game. I thought we made some improvement this week; that was good to see."
Brady completed 25-of-36 throws for 225 yards with one interception for the Patriots, who have opened a campaign at 3-0 for the first time since their undefeated regular season six years ago. Tight end Rob Gronkowski was inactive once again as his 2013 debut remains on hold, while slot receiver Danny Amendola missed a second straight game with a groin injury.
Rookie wideout Aaron Dobson had 52 yards on seven receptions.
"I feel good, we're 3-0," Pats All-Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "You can't ask for anything better."
Actually 4-0 would be better, but the Falcons will be in desperation mode after a last-second defeat in Miami (27-23) in Week 3. At home, Atlanta has won 12 of its past 13 regular-season contests.
"I'm looking forward to having a big week," Falcons rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "I can't wait. I know we're all looking forward to it. We've got a bad taste in our mouth right now, so we're just looking forward to getting back to grinding."
Ryan had 231 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-38 passing against the Dolphins for Atlanta, which dominated time of possession in the opening half, holding the ball for nearly 23 minutes.
With Steven Jackson (hamstring) out, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling shared the running back duties for Atlanta. Rodgers finished with a career- high 86 yards rushing, while Snelling had 53 yards on the ground and caught four passes for 58 yards.
Atlanta's Julio Jones led all receivers with 115 yards on nine catches for the Falcons, who lost despite a 377-285 edge in total offensive yards.
"This was a game where I think we had a ton of opportunities to have chances to win the game, we just didn't make the plays when they were presented to us," Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said.
The all-time series between the Pats and Falcons is even at six apiece but the Pats have won three straight and haven't lost to Atlanta since the turn of the century.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
A year after averaging a mind-boggling 34.8 points per game, the Pats have been under 20 this season at 19.7 with red zone woes contributing mightily to the problem.
"Just poor execution," Brady, who is 3-0 in his career against the Falcons, said of the team's No 32 ranking in red zone efficiency, worst in all of football. "I've been one of the main culprits."
The return of Gronkowski (forearm, back) and Amendola (groin) would go a long way in curing those woes and both were practicing this week, albeit on a limited basis.
Until then Belichick will continue to ride a defense which has allowed just 34 points overall or 11.3 per game, second in the NFL behind the Seahawks' 9.0 points allowed.
New England is one of just 10 teams to hold its first three opponents under 1,000 yards and is allowing only 188.3 yards per game through the air. The unit has also proven adept at taking the football away, ranking second in the AFC in turnovers.
Ryan, though, is a huge upgrade in competition from the first three QBs the Pays have faced: rookies E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith along with the recently benched Josh Freeman.
"Preparing for Atlanta is different than preparing for anybody else," Belichick said. "(Ryan is) very good. He does a good job with his pre-snap reads, he uses all of his weapons -- running backs, tight ends, receivers. I wouldn't say he's a big scrambler, but he can run and he can hurt you scrambling if you give him the opportunity so you have to be cognizant of that. But he doesn't have many bad plays, he has a lot of good ones. He's a real good quarterback."
Ryan's favorite target, Jones, leads the NFL with 373 receiving yards but Roddy White, the team's other elite receiver, needs to get more involved. White, who has been struggling with an ankle issue, has just seven catches for 56 yards on the year.
"We've got to do a lot more on offense," White said. "In the red zone, score touchdowns not kick field goals. We've got to find a way to find the end zone."
Jackson remains out in the backfield, leaving things for Rodgers and Snelling.
"It looks like whichever back is in there is productive," Belichick said. "Snelling did a real good job for them. Rodgers is an excellent runner and he's good in the passing game too. They've got good depth at that position."
Smith is 34-7 as the Falcons' head coach at the Georgia Dome since taking over in 2008. Perhaps even more impressively Atlanta has gone 22-3 following a loss in Smith's tenure and the team hasn't dropped back-to-back encounters since falling to Philadelphia and New Orleans in consecutive weeks in 2009.
Look for the far more desperate team to get it done here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 23, Patriots 17
09/26 14:37:23 ET
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